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Tampa and St. Petersburg: Ideal Florida Family Fun

Travelling with babies, you expect to be woken up at sunrise. With older kids, however, holidays should mean sleeping in. Right? Not so on a recent holiday on the Florida's West Coast.

Dustin was insisting we set our travel alarm clock for 6:40 a.m. (We bring this clock along only so we don't miss early flights or excursions.) We argued that this wake-up call was even earlier than at home. But our 11-year-old would not be swayed. "If we don't get out onto the beach by 7," he cried, "all the good shells will be gone." This was true. We had seen people out early, walking in a stoop and bending over to pick up their beach prizes.

This requested early rising had come about because, due to a pastcard we'd seen showing dozens of different shells, the kids had set up a contest. Who could collect the most types during the week? Our middle child was determined to beat his older brother and younger sister at the game.

Unbelievably, we agreed to set the alarm. Most mornings, by 7 a.m. we were already playing in the surf and the kids were running along the long strand of white sand searching for shells.

The Pinellas Peninsula incorporating the Clearwater/ St. Petersburg area is home to some of the finest sun-splashed beaches on the Gulf of Mexico. From Tarpon Springs in the north (where, in an underwater viewing tank at Homosassa Wildlife Park, you can watch the cow-like manatees drifting by) to St. Petersburg in the south, where there's enough sand to spend days building castles, there's beach activities for everyone in the family. The other great thing about this area is that you can combine your beach holiday with city sightseeing. Thirty minutes across the causeway is Tampa, Florida's third largest city and a family destination that's adding attractions every year.

The current excitement this coming week is centred on Tampa's new $ 84 million U.S. Florida Aquarium. Scheduled to open its doors on Friday, the new glass-roofed structure along the city's waterfront resembles a giant shimmering shell. Inside, the exhibits will tell the story of water as it moves from its underground source to the open sea. Kids should love examining the realistic-looking Florida habitats, such as the simulated sand bay with its own wave machine, beach creatures such as sandpipers, lemon sharks, and horseshoe crabs, and a sandy area where youngsters can search for sharks teeth and coquina shells. A cypress bog, a mangrove forest, and a Florida river will display their natural creatures.

Tampa is probably best known, however, as home to the state's second most popular tourist attraction after Disney World - Busch Gardens, a 335-acre park that is home to 3400 animals. The kids had a blast shooting down a waterfall in the Tanganyika Tidal Wave, watching newborn lemurs with their mothers, riding the monorail past gazelles and rhinos grazing on the African-style Serengeti plain, and eating churros for the first time, deep-fried pastries dipped in suger.

Our kids were particularly fascinated with the Nairobi Field Station where they could watch staff caring for ill or injured animals. Busch Gardens is also home to skating and dolphin shows, lots of impromptu performances by belly dancers or steel bands, a Moroccan Bazaar, and Kumba (which means "Roar"), the fastest steel roller coaster in the Southeast. It peaks at 60 miles per hour.

New this year is Land of the Dragons, an adventure area where younger children can ride a mini-size ferris wheel, play in a tree house, and romp with "Dumphrey" the dragon.

Also fun for families is the Lowry Park Zoo with a petting zoo for young children, and the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) where kids can brave the 74 mph winds of a hurricane, walk among butterflies, or command a Starship. An expansion with exhibits on medicine and space and an OMNIMAX Theatre opens July 1, 1995.

Visiting Tampa today, it's hard to believe that the city was founded because of cigars. Just over a hundred years ago, a Cuban named Don Vincente Martinez Ybor started up the first cigar-making factory. Thousands of immigrants came to work in the 1300 factories that sprang up and Ybor City was born. Today, you can still see cigars being rolled and take a free guided tour of the historic district. Take older kids to the Columbia Restaurant (248-4961) where they can watch flamenco dancing and try black bean soup and chocolate volcano cake; All kids should enjoy the Silver Ring Café (248-2932) where sandwich makers construct layers of smoked ham, roast pork, Genoa salami and Swiss cheese on fresh Cuban bread.

As for accommodations, The Holiday Inn Tampa Busch Gardens offers rooms for $49 U.S. The Crown Sterling Suites (1-800-433-4600) one mile away gives two-room suites and full buffet breakfast for $119 per night including shuttle service to area attractions. For a combined beach-city holiday, the Radisson Sandpiper Resort (1-800-237-0707) in St. Petersburg is ideal. Their Family Surf & Safari offers giant beach towels, tickets to Busch Gardens, cocktails and ice cream treats, a coupon book, shuttle service, passes to Beach Adventure Camp activities for the kids, and a well-furnished suite for $199 per night. Their Beachcomber's Adventure package starts at $133.





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